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The Agony and Ecstasy of the Marathon

By Mark Viviano 

The marathon is a temptress, even to those who think they've visited her for a final time. I've done all the big races, from Boston to Honolulu, and after completing my 20th marathon in Nashville a couple of years ago, I was quite sure I had my fill of running the 26.2-mile distance. But when the Baltimore Marathon beckoned, I found myself pulled back into the swirl that is the agony and ecstasy of the marathon -- and I'm glad I did it.

There's a great deal of attention paid to race day, but for us average runners, race day is merely the final leg of a long journey that begins four months prior. The heart and soul of the marathon isn't in the pomp and circumstance of marathon day, but in the long, lonely miles and hours of training when there's no crowd cheering -- just the beat of your heart and the sound of your breath while grinding through those arduous training sessions.
The marathon's core is in the discipline and self-sacrifice it takes to wake up early on a weekend morning when sleeping in seems much friendlier. Then race day becomes payday -- the day you hope to get back all that you gave.

We start at Camden Yards and the coolness of the morning makes for a pleasant beginning. It's a gentle downhill on St. Paul Street toward Mile 6. A runner pulls alongside me and shares his joy of the relative ease of the downhill. We agree to enjoy it while we can, because there's hell to pay later.

Through downtown and South Baltimore, heading out toward Fort McHenry past Mile 8, the elite front-runners are already on their way back on what is Mile 12 for them. The lead pack runners glide along effortlessly. I'm not sure if I'm inspired or humiliated by them.

I hit the half-marathon mark at 1 hour and 41 minutes -- ahead of my anticipated pace. Local running icon Jim Adams has just completed his leg of the marathon relay, so he jumps in alongside me to pace for awhile. He reminds me to scale back if I'm running too fast. 

Eastward through Fells Point and Canton, at Mile 15, I begin to feel the echoes of old injuries. There's soreness in my left ankle from a baseball mishap 10 years ago, pain in my right clavicle from a childhood playground injury and a momentary throb in my lower back which I'll attribute to today's beating. These pains have visited me so often, I almost welcome them as familiar. 

It's at Mile 18 that the Baltimore Marathon offers its first "wall"-- the uphill on Harford Road. It's where the body either responds to training or begins to break down from a lack thereof. I feel my training kick in and I'm defiant as I climb.

Toward Mile 22, 33rd Street offers another climb. I curse the course designers, but my pace remains steady as I hit another incline toward Mile 24 on the Howard Street Bridge. I've convinced myself that this climb is good for me because it forces me to use a different cadence (yes, you learn to lie to yourself to keep from slowing down).

The stretch run toward downtown is the marathon payoff. The weariness of getting to this point is muted by the euphoria of the impending finish. The crowd is bigger, the cheers are louder, my spirit carries me and I'm feeling no pain. I beat my goal time of 3 hours and 30 minutes, crossing the finish in 3:28:04 to place 242nd out of 2,157 finishers. 

Thousands of athletes ran the Baltimore Marathon. The elite came from all corners of the world to win money. The rest of us ran our own personal races rooted in a journey to exceed our assumed physical and mental limits. The marathon is a temptress and I'll never say never when asked if I'll visit her again.

***

I'd like to thank race organizers and volunteers, the Baltimore Police, marathon medical teams, Jim Adams and the Falls Road Running team and fitness guru Jodie Gordon of the Meadow Mill Athletic Club.

Mark Viviano is sports director for WJZ-13 and is also the host of The Mark Viviano Show which can be heard Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN 1300-AM.

Issue 1.26: October 19, 2006